This was originally a mediaeval parish church, known as Santa Lucia della Colonna. Its first mention in the sources dates to 1228, but it was probably at least two centuries older than that. (Armellini's reference to an earlier entry in the biography of Pope Honorius II is mistaken, according to Hülsen; the church concerned was Santa Lucia in Selci, in the latter's opinion. The point is disputed.)
In 1520, Pope Leo X granted it to a pious confraternity known as the Compagnia della Carità, who intended to found a nunnery for converted prostitutes. Prostitution was tolerated throughout the history of Papal government in Rome, but great interest was always taken in persuading the women concerned to give up the business. (The question was usually avoided as to why so many native Roman girls were tempted into the career choice in the first place.) One obvious alternative career was religious life, but almost all nunneries required a dowry, or physical virginity or both. Hence, the foundation of a nunnery especially for ex-prostitutes made good sense.
The dedication of the church was changed from St Lucy of Syracuse to St Mary Magdalene.
In the Western Church, the latter saint had become the patron saint of prostitutes because it was believed that she had been one before being converted by Christ and having "seven devils" expelled from her. The Biblical texts do not support this view, which was a result of bad exegesis by Pope Gregory the Great. He confused her with an unnamed "sinner" who anointed Christ's feet with aromatic oil (Lk 7:37), and then presumed that the sin was sexual (it could have been collaboration with the Roman occupying power). Later, in the early Middle Ages, Westerners also confused her with St Mary of Egypt , a repentant prostitute who died as a hermit in the Judaean Desert about the year 420 and who is the patron of prostitutes in the East. The result of all this has been an artistic genre showing St Mary Magdalene as a young blonde woman meditating on her sins in the wilderness; some great artworks have resulted, including one in this church, and also much kitsch verging on the pornographic. The blonde motif was early -the sexual status of blondes is not a modern invention.
The nuns followed the Augustinian rule, and were known as the Sorelle della Penitenza. The core community that first settled here were not ex-prostitutes, but came from Santa Marta al Collegio Romano. There St Ignatius of Loyola , at the start of the century, had founded a small sisterhood to help prevent married women of the city supplementing their income with prostitution. The venture was a complete failure, as the so-called malmaritane knew their own minds, but the sisters there were ideally qualified to provide a start for the new nunnery and would have had no illusions about what they were letting themselves in for. The project succeeded.
The church was rebuilt for the new monastery in 1585 by Carlo Maderno, but both had to be thoroughly restored after a fire in 1617. The architect for this was Martino Longhi the Younger, and the major benefactor was Olimpia Aldobrandini.
The whole complex was shut down by the French occupiers soon after their arrival in 1798. On the site the Palazzo Marignoli was eventually built in 1878; it is not clear whether the French actually demolished the church, or whether it was converted to profane use in the meantime.
The church was on the south side of the junction between the Corso and the Via delle Convertite, which preserves the memory of the convent. When the Palazzo Marignoli was built the opportunity was taken to widen the Corso here by setting the frontage back. The original line of the church's façade is given by the buildings on the eastern side of the Corso north of the junction. Hence, much of the church site is now in the roadway.
This was a large and prestigious nunnery, which occupied the entire city block bounded by the Corso, Via delle Convertite, Via San Claudia and Piazza di San Silvestro. Wings of the convent occupied three sides of the block, but the fourth side to the east had the sisters' garden. The main entrance was on the Corso south of the church, and this led into a square cloister with arcades on all four sides and with a fountain in the centre. To the north of this, east of the church, was a smaller square courtyard.
The church had an almost square plan, with an external transverse rectangular nave entered through a triumphal arch. Two pillars on either side divided the space into a three-bay nave and aisles structurally, but the latter were subdivided into three side chapels each by partition walls. Further, the first bay of the nave was cut off from the rest of the church by a grille. The nuns kept strict enclosure (hardly surprising), and this would have been the only part of the church to which the public was normally admitted.
Maderno's façade was a noble design. It had two storeys, the first of which had six Ionic pilasters supporting an entablature with dentillation on both architrave and cornice. These pilasters were on high plinths, each of which had a recessed square panel. Three vertical rectangular panels occupied each zone between the pilasters, and the single entrance had a raised triangular pediment.
The second storey fronted the central nave only. It was about half the height of the first storey, and had four stumpy Ionic pilasters supporting a segmental pediment with two dentillated archivolts, one inside the other. The tympanum of this had an oculus. There was a central rectangular window with its own triangular pediment, and in between each pair of pilasters were two recessed panels, a round-headed one above a rectangular one. This storey was bounded by a pair of gigantic double volutes.
The church was famous for its main altarpiece, The Penitent Magdalen by Guercino. This is now in the Vatican Museums, and shows her moping over one of the nails used in the Crucifixion. An angel is holding it out to her. The work used to be in a side chapel, but was moved to the main altar in the mid 18th century.
The former main altarpiece was The Assumption of Our Lady by Il Morazzone, which seems to have ended up in the first chapel on the left. He was also responsible for the Martyrdom of St Lucy and the Adoration of the Magi, both of which used to be in the apse. The first chapel on the right had a Crucifixion by Giacinto Brandi, who was also responsible for the altarpiece in the next chapel on that side. The third chapel there had Our Lady in Glory with Saints from the school of Giulio Romano. The other two chapels on the left dispayed a work by Sigismondo Rosa, and a series by Vespasiano Strada depicting the Nativity, Visitation of Our Lady and Flight to Egypt.